“That’s Not ‘Arm Flab,’ That’s Your Tricep”: On Knowing Your Own Body

I was hanging out with my friend Em last night. Em is a petite woman, a little shorter than average and naturally slender. She was asking me about weight-lifting and telling me that she liked to do tricep extensions because, in her words, as she held up her right arm to demonstrate by moving the back of it with her left hand, “I have arm flab!”

“No, you don’t,” I told her, because that’s ridiculous for a woman of Em’s general shape to say.

This is when I blew her mind, as she continued to protest: I took off my jacket, held my arm up limp, and poked at the back of my arm with my other hand. “Everyone’s back-arm jiggles if they’re holding it up with their bicep and deltoid,” I said, pointing at the muscles. Then I flexed my tricep and poked at it: No movement anymore. “Because if you’re holding it up by your bicep and deltoid, the tricep isn’t active. That’s not ‘flab,’ that’s your tricep. It makes up most of the back of your arm.”

“I never thought of that,” she said. And look, Em is an extraordinarily observant, articulate, intelligent person. But when you get the message drilled into your brain so many times over the course of two or three decades that you need to “Get Rid Of That Arm Jiggle!” and “Get Toned Arms Like Jennifer Aniston!” and so on, and no one’s telling you that by the way, you have a tricep and muscles aren’t rock-hard all the time even for very fit, “toned” people, why would you assume anything else but that your arm is too “flabby”?

Ugh, there are scare-quotes all around in this post already. But that’s because “toned” looks different for everyone, and I don’t want to validate “flabby” as a necessarily bad thing. It’s not, and I don’t want to discourage Em or anyone else from having subcutaneous fat on their arms (I do!), it’s just that she wasn’t looking at her body with anatomical facts in mind; rather, she was looking at it with media messaging in mind.

It took me until very recently to understand my own arms. I mean, heck, last night, when I got home and I was taking my necklaces off, I had to marvel a little bit at just how much more definition I have in my biceps and deltoids than I did six months ago. Nevertheless, even with doing barbell lifting now three times a week, a dumbbell compound workout twice a week, and running now four times a week, I have pretty sizeable guns. I had been working under the assumption that once I started getting strong and losing my body fat, my arms would get slimmer, and instead, they’ve just gotten firmer.

But that’s OK! My arms bear the marks of the work I’ve been putting in at the gym, not just in the way they look, of course, but also in their capabilities. Furthermore, it’s enlightening to know that my body works in such a way that I’m not going to have slender, Jennifer Aniston-type arms. And the way my body works — the way any of our individual bodies work — is all that’s important.

Women are walking around with all these spot-checking body “shoulds” running on infinite repeat in the back of our heads, like I should have arms that don’t jiggle, or I should have thinner ankles, or I should have a flat stomach, or I should be more muscular, and — why? Why should we have or be any of those things? The word “should” is really important to think about here. The definition of “should” is “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” It’s a moral term. It relates to what we believe to be our moral goals, and whether or not we are living up to them. But look, what moral goals do we actually fulfill by attempting to obtain arms that look like someone else’s arms, arms that might not be possible for our individual bodies to have? And what obligation are we really under to not have arms that move?

That’s about as far down the philosophical arm-jiggle rabbit hole as I want to go. But my solution is this: If you don’t know your own body (for example, if you don’t know your tricep intimately), get to know it. Once you get to know it, you can stop measuring it in terms of other people’s bodies, and start measuring it in its own terms.

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